By Brad Hicks
Fiddlers’ conventions have stood the test of time.
In the years prior to World War II, such gatherings attracted crowds clamoring for traditional music with a regional flavor. The popularity of fiddlers’ conventions, however, waned in the 1940s to 1950s. But old-time fiddlers’ conventions began to make a comeback in the 1970s, and these events showcasing the talents of those participating are now more popular than ever. A number of conventions that draw scores of participants are held throughout the South today.
But staff members from Rocky Fork State Park and East Tennessee State University noticed something – the lack of a fiddler’s convention highlighting and celebrating the rich musical heritage of this area. This prompted them to go to work.
These efforts culminated in the first-ever Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention, which was held Saturday, April 29, at the old Flag Pond School. The event, designed to mirror the renowned Mountain City Fiddler’s Convention held in the mid-1920s and other old-time conventions, attracted dozens of musicians and hundreds of spectators.
The Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention was made possible through a partnership between Rocky Fork State Park and ETSU. The two entities pooled their resources and received additional financial support to help pull off the event. The Tennessee Arts Commission previously provided a $3,400 grant to be used for artists fees, to bring in judges, and for other costs associated with the event. The Friends of Rocky Fork State Park group provided another $3,000 for the various cash prizes awarded during the convention.
Musician and Rocky Fork State Park Ranger Tim Pharis said planning for the event took around a year, but the Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention quickly proved to be a hit. Pharis said the 500 tickets available for the Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention sold out by 1:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon, just 90 minutes after registration opened for the event.
“So then, we just started making up armbands as we went to give to people because we still had room,” Pharis said Monday.
Fiddlers, singers, guitarists and banjo pickers from throughout this part of the country took part in Saturday’s convention. Many of the contestants were from North Carolina and Tennessee, but the event also drew musicians from Southwest Virginia.
“We saw tags for Georgia, California, Ohio, and I think somebody was there from Maine, even,” Pharis said.
Cash prizes were awarded to musicians who placed in a number of categories, including “Fiddlingest Fiddler,” “Top Banjo Picker,” “Finest Singer,” “Dancingest Dancer,” and “Hottest String Band.” Those finishing first in the musical contests also got to take home more eclectic and traditional prizes, such as a “plump laying hen,” a peck of potatoes, an oil lamp, and a bushel of apples and cake soap.
Other non-cash prizes, such as handkerchiefs, a bottle of cod liver oil, galluses and a box of salted crackers were awarded to the winners of additional contests, including “Best Dressed Fiddler,” “Fiddler with the Longest Whiskers,” “Oldest Fiddler,” and “Tallest Fiddler”
Pharis said an important aspect of the Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention was its educational component. He said the event gave musicians who traveled from outside the area to attend and compete, the opportunity to learn more about the musical heritage of this region.
“Each little region has their own fiddling style and music that evolved in that region, like pre-radio-type stuff,” Pharis said. “They all play their own particular tunes that really weren’t played a hundred miles away. When people think about upper east Tennessee, they think about the Bristol Sessions, they think about the Carter family, they think about Jimmie Rodgers, but they don’t really think about this informal fiddling tradition that we have.”
“We have long needed to revive the fiddler’s convention tradition in East Tennessee, and Tim decided to take the initiative last year to make something happen,” Roy Andrade, associate professor of Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies in ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies, said in February. “He called and asked if I’d like to be involved, and that’s how our partnership began. It’s a natural collaboration in many ways – the natural world, preserving and celebrating timeless ideals, and sharing and learning about music and its surroundings are important to both Tim and I, and to lots of people who participate in Old-Time music.”
During Saturday’s event, two newly-discovered recordings from J.D. Harris, a musician born in Flag Pond in 1859, were debuted and played for those in attendance.
The convention also drew approximately 200 campers to the grounds around the old Flag Pond School. Pharis said Saturday’s event concluded at around 11:30 p.m. with a square dance, and jam sessions from campers continued well into the early hours of Sunday morning.
Pharis described the Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention as a “resounding success,” adding positive feedback was offered up by both attendees and participating musicians.
“Everything was far more successful than we thought it would be, and it was well-received by everyone,” Pharis said.
And, Pharis said, the second annual Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention is already in the works.
“We have already applied for a grant with (the Tennessee Arts Commission) for 2018, before this one even happened,” Pharis said.